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SA health chief Nicholas Crisp is confident South Africa will soon be off UK’s Covid red list

A traveler passes a sign for a Covid-19 testing centre at London Heathrow Airport in London, U.K., on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The health department chief believes SA has made its case to Britain for removal from the red list after a team of South African officials and scientists met online on 27 September with Britain’s Joint Biosecurity Centre. “I will be not only bitterly disappointed but I will be hugely surprised if we are not taken off the list,” Crisp told Daily Maverick after a week of intense discussions with his British counterparts.

South Africa’s acting director-general of health, Dr Nicholas Crisp, is confident that the UK will remove SA from its Covid-19 red list, probably over the next week. 

Crisp headed a team of South Africa’s officials and scientists who met online on Monday 27 September with Britain’s Joint Biosecurity Centre which assesses the risks posed by each country and decides which should be on the red list.

He believes the South Africans gave the Britons enough information to justify removing SA from the red list, which bars South Africans from entering the UK and obliges British citizens returning from South Africa to undergo 10 days of expensive tests and official quarantine in designated hotels.

After the Monday meeting the two governments issued a joint statement saying the insights provided at the meeting would feed into the next review of Britain’s border measures, which would take place within the next fortnight.

The quarantine measures imposed by South Africa’s red-list status are greatly deterring British tourism to South Africa, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) which has calculated that this is costing South Africa about R26-million a day.

The WTTC said in August that in 2019, before Covid-19, South Africa had been among the most popular destinations for UK travellers, accounting for 7% of international visitor spending, representing R9.4-billion. Most of that evaporated with Covid-19.

The Western Cape, which is heavily dependent on international tourism, has been hit particularly hard and urgently needs South Africa to be removed from the list before the summer season begins. 

At the last review, on September 17, the UK removed several countries – including Kenya and Pakistan – but left South Africa on the list.

This outraged many, including the South African tourism industry which claimed the UK decision was unscientific and outdated as South Africa had a much lower rate of Covid-19 infection than even the UK itself and that the Beta variant, which most bothers Britain, had largely been replaced by the Delta variant – which was equally prevalent in the UK.

Former British Labour Party cabinet minister Peter Hain joined the chorus, calling the UK’s decision “ludicrous” and unscientific. 

Yet despite the much greater prevalence of the Delta variant, the Beta variant still clearly remains the greatest concern for British scientists because they regard it as the most mutatable and therefore most easily able to evade vaccines – particularly the AstraZeneca vaccine which is by far the most commonly used in Britain. AstraZeneca does better against the Delta variant. 

Crisp told Daily Maverick that the British scientists were right about AstraZeneca not being as effective against the Beta variant as other vaccines were. That was why South Africa had decided against using it.

But he also told the UK scientists that South Africa had not detected a single person infected with the Beta variant in more than a month.

“I guess what they were trying to work out was; is there any prospect of us not picking up a Beta variant in South Africa?

“How confident are we of our sampling, of our methods; how quickly our labs turn around the specimens? They asked us about the fact that we’ve got so many borders and people crossing the borders. 

“What happens if there are people who cross the borders who come into South Africa with the Beta? Would we pick it up? So those were the kinds of questions they were probing. We had the answers for all of them. And we had the lab results for all of them,” Crisp said.

In fact the British scientists had already seen the lab results. But they still expressed concern that South Africa was not doing enough sampling.

“They referred specifically to the Northern Cape. But then I mentioned that Northern Cape has a population of a little over a million people. It might look big on the map but there’s hardly anybody there. So the sample size is going to be very small. I don’t think they had understood quite how small the Northern Cape population was.”

Britain is monitoring more than 260 countries or territories to assess the risk each one poses to its vaccine programmes – and to its population. So it is possible that it might miss out on important details about a particular country’s Covid-19 profile. 

However if that was so, Crisp seemed confident that “now we are definitely on the radar”. And not only because of the meeting last Monday but because of several follow-up meetings and calls, including one between himself and his UK counterpart and a call between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Prime Minister Boris Johnson which raised Ramaphosa’s hopes that South Africa would be removed from the red list. 

“I think what this has done is it’s made us realise just how important we are to one another,” Crisp said. He had seen a media report which suggested that South Africa was just a pimple on Britain’s face. 

“But I don’t think they perceive us like that. They take us seriously and we take them seriously. There’s a lot of trade and tourism between the two countries. Huge historical ties, obviously. So it’s important that we maintain that. So if they need data and they need to be convinced, and they don’t want to make ad-hoc decisions, they now know who to ask.” 

“They work in three-week cycles. And they do the science, they present it to their ministers in health. And they take a decision. 

“So now we’re waiting for that next decision. I don’t know what day it is, but I guess it’s coming in the next week. So now we hope. I will be not only bitterly disappointed but I will be hugely surprised if we are not taken off the list. Ja I’m confident. We’ve had good discussions this week.” 

However the need for Britain also to recognise South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine certificates could still cause delays for South Africans hoping to visit Britain – though not for Britons who wish to visit South Africa.

So far the UK has not recognised South Africa’s vaccine certificates,  prompting criticism that it is discriminating against this country by rejecting the same vaccines it accepts from some other countries.  

But the problem could largely be just bureaucratic delay. Britain, like many other countries, is systematically evaluating the vaccination certificates of other countries before recognising them. And it is evaluating countries not on the red list before those that are.

South Africa’s roll-out of a digital vaccine certificate, starting on Monday, 4 October, should help it to win UK recognition. Crisp said South African and British officials had also discussed the certificates this week.  

So the Britons knew how the digital vaccine certificate would work, in a three-phase development, with increasingly sophisticated capabilities.  Initially, it would be intended for domestic, not international, use so would be a light version without all the cybersecurity features which would come later. 

But South Africa had also made clear to Britain that the digital certificate would be based on the World Health Organisation guideline. 

Crisp said he hoped that Britain would have approved the certificate by the time it removed South Africa from the red list. 

The UK has also been criticised for being out of step with other countries such as France and Germany, which are already welcoming vaccinated South African visitors, and without quarantine requirements. 

However the British approach seems to be that each country has to determine its own Covid-19 border control measures in the light of its domestic controls. And so a country like France, for example, which requires health passports for entry to places such as restaurants and theatres, could afford to be more open at its frontiers. 

The UK High Commission in Pretoria said Britain “values its long and important relationship with South Africa … We do not want the current travel restrictions between South Africa and the UK to be in place any longer than necessary and recognise the disruption they cause and the impact they have on people’s lives.  

“We welcome recent positive developments in South Africa with cases going down, data on variants of concern improving and vaccination rising. While a small number of cases, the continued presence of the Beta variant in the community remains a concern given its potential ability to circumvent vaccines. 

“We hope current positive trends will continue and will allow red-listing to be removed as soon as conditions allow.”

The Sunday Telegraph reported that the UK will abolish quarantine for almost all countries. DM

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